The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

Interim Spaces

As I turned my head in the bed, the house creaked. Any motion or even a deeper breath yielded the same effect. The house was a wooden Victorian structure that loved to creak. The jovial owner ran a BnB, used no computer, but knew every guest — past and present — by name. I was in Leicester for a conference. My university gave me a budget for a nice hotel room, but I kept with my habit of not staying in hotels. Hotels are the enemies of travelling, they maximize the distance between you and the place you are visiting. So I had scouted Couchsurfing and AirBnB for a room, but to no avail. I had gone through the list of BnB-s in town, and had chosen the smallest one.

Old town in Leicester

Where creaky houses abound.

It was a great choice. The bathroom was shared, the walls were paper thin, and the guests had to adjust to the owner’s hours — she would not get up before eight just to fix your breakfast. I had to drag a clunky, ancient ironing board from the bathroom to my room to make my conference outfit presentable. Despite the apparent inconveniences, I had no regrets, the charm of the place was well worth it.

Sometimes I travel for months without a break for work, yet I would never stay in a hotel. The last time I did was during a workshop in Nijmegen. I was an invited speaker, so the organizers put me in a nice hotel. Entering my room with the key card, electricity turned on, and the gigantic TV set displayed a welcome message with my name. They knew my name in a creepy, impersonal way. Breakfast was continental abomination. I routinely placed the key card in the same pocket with my phone, so it was demagnetized every time I wanted to enter my room. I felt like an idiot when I had to go back to the reception for the fourteenth time to remagnetize my key. The funniest part was they wanted me to pay for the wifi; breaking in was a matter of thirty seconds.

It would be unjust to overlook the advantages: the interior design was superb, the heavy curtains blocked all noise from outside, and I could spend my entire life in a bathroom like the one my room had. Despite all that, I prefer something with more flavour and with free wifi.

The next time I had to visit the Netherlands I insisted on picking my accommodation. The venue of the meeting was in an industrial part of Amsterdam, near a conveniently located business hotel. I duly ignored the hotel, and spotted that there was a canal running right next to the venue. I looked up whether there were houseboats on that section, and whether they let out rooms. It turned out that the houseboats in Amsterdam had an association for BnB-style rentals of rooms, and there was a vacant room right across the venue.

Houseboats in Amsterdam waiting for bnb guests

Encounter cranky ducks while staying on houseboats.

My hosts were an artist couple with two tiny dogs and with an infinite amount of hospitality. The room was below the water level, with just a tiny window above the water. The angle was perfect to admire the derrière of the ducks that swam by. The boat had a terrace opening to the canal. We were having breakfast on the terrace as a grumpy mallard climbed out of the water. It was vocal about its discontentment with life, walked in the house, chased the two dogs, then exited on the other side. My hosts were undisturbed. They said it always did this.

I also struck a great deal in San José while attending a conference. I found a room on AirBnB a short tram ride away from the conference. For the price of a room in a hotel for three nights, I got the room for ten days. The walls of my room were decorated with various diplomas and achievements in the field of massage therapy, all belonging to my host. This was a discrete hint that fabulous massages were also on offer, albeit not included in the price.

Suburbia in San José

AirBnB is your ticket to American suburbia.

Sometimes a deal is too good to be true. A spring school was coming up in Jülich on a topic that I was dying to learn more about. It was aimed at masters and PhD students, but I slipped through registration. The fee for the proceedings, accommodation, and food was hardly more than two hundred euros for the entire two weeks of the school. As an opportunistic nomad, I would have registered even if I had zero interest in the recent developments in quantum information theory, just to save some cash.

The catch was the accommodation: we were put up in a dormitory and five of us shared a room. I was never much of a room-sharer: being locked up with four blokes doing their PhDs in physics was a hideous prospect. I would have been far more comfortable with four ladies doing their PhDs in anything. The receptionist was a preserver of German virtue, and did not allow such mingling.

Snow-covered footpath in Aachen

The snowy road to snoredom. Be picky when selecting your room mates in Germany.

Reality corroborated my fears: one of the guys had a jet engine hidden inside his nose. His snoring was so bad that even people in the next room could not sleep. I treated my involuntary insomnia with excess consumption of free coffee, which turned me into an anti-social but hyperactive caricature of a scientist, with a behaviour similar to that of a grumpy Dutch duck.

Temporary storage of your hull is inherently business-like, but hotels further expose your loneliness. I prefer to put up with the idiosyncrasies of a private host and fellow guests than linger on the beauty of interior design. The chance of listening to fellow humans gives me the illusion that I am an also a human belonging somewhere, and not just a derailed trajectory in space-time.

Comments are closed.